October 18th, 2014 / 8 Comments » / by Tom
Willie Lewis, rockabilly icon and owner of the Rock-A-Billy Record Co. died yesterday, Oct. 17, 2014, during ablation heart surgery, he was 68 years old. He leaves behind a large family and an extensive musical legacy.
The fact that he lived this long is a bit miraculous, as he seemed to be living on borrowed time for many, many years. Bill always suffered from various health conditions. He was born with Erythroblastosis Fetalis which was a conflict with his mother’s RH negative blood and his own RH positive blood, an illness considered terminal for males (including his older brother who died from this). Bill was told he was the first male to survive the disease by a newly developed complete blood transfer procedure.
I am not sure if that blood transfer had anything to do with it, but Bill seemed wired differently than you and I. He was incredibly intelligent, very hyper-aware and very high strung. This led to a troubled youth which he eventually put behind him due to his love of his beloved wife Mary Louise Sanchez (who passed on April 14th, 2013) and his passion for record collecting. After amassing an incredible amount of rare rockabilly, doo wop, blues, soul, country and ranchera music, he decided it was time to record and release his own first record, The Rockin’ Blues, a 100 percent authentic rockabilly record and one of many highly prized releases sought by record collectors the world over. Famous for authenticity and his single-microphone-in-the-living-room recording technique, Lewis’ Rock-A-Billy Record Company became known worldwide and rockabilly bands came, not just from all over the country, but all over the world to have records released on his label. Artists included: High Noon, Go Cat Go, Ronnie Dawson, Carl Sonny Leyland , the Barnshakers, the Hal Peters Trio & the Stablemen.
Lewis had his first heart attack after his second record came back from the pressing plant and he discovered all the copies had accidently been pressed sped-up like the Chipmunks. Damage from this initial heart attack caused an arrhythmia which induced a series of subsequent heart attacks and left Lewis technically dead for 30 minutes. The damage destroyed 65% of his heart muscle, leaving him with with a functioning portion of his heart a little larger than the size of a walnut. He didn’t expect to live much longer after that, so while in the hospital he wrote one of his best songs for Mary Louise, “I’ll Still Love You When They’re Laying Me In The Ground”. Lewis was told that if he had another heart attack, he would not survive it. Nevertheless, he continued pursuing playing and recording rockabilly music by himself and others for many years after, with the assumption that any one of these recordings could be his last.
Lewis did survive several more heart attacks over the years which led to at least two retirements from the music business. The man had two pacemakers and a defibrillator in his chest. Last year he developed pneumonia and was rushed to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s. While there, they performed an ablation surgery to burn off some of his dead heart tissue to give room to his functioning heart. Complications from the surgery left a hole in the pericardial sac surrounding the heart which then filled with liquid leading to open heart surgery. He was literally ten seconds from death. The heart medicine he was on during this hospital stay ate away at his muscle tissue, leaving him nothing but skin and bones. By the time he left the hospital for rehab he could barely lift his head. But once in rehab, he worked as hard as they had ever seen anyone to rebuild his muscle mass and miraculously within months was able to walk again and return home.
Knowing that his time was short, during this hospital and rehab stay he worked on and released four new Rock-A-Billy Record Co. records (one by him, three by other artists) and after returning home assembled 32 songs for a final CD which was released a month or two ago. He also had two more records in the works, both currently on their way to the pressing plant.
Last week Bill went into the hospital for upper-respiratory bronchitis. The lack of oxygen made his defibrillator go off numerous times. Yesterday they tried to do another ablation procedure which he did not survive.
Willie Lewis was the last true giant of rockabilly, recording more original authentic, rockabilly recordings than any other. His unique voice and character can be recognized immediately, he sounded like no other artist. His passing will sadden all and closes a historical era.
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Last Call with Willie Lewis
I had my last phone call with Willie Lewis, Oct. 15th, the night before he last went back into the hospital. He had been admitted a few days before, but demanded to be released as he felt he wasn’t getting any better. I called him at home to see how he was doing. At first he was angrily ranting about the health care system. “Tom, in the, oh, 28 hours I have been out of the hospital, I must have had 50 or 60 phone calls from various medical companies trying to sell me stuff. They’d say, this device will help you breathe, but we checked and your Medicare won’t cover it, just your Medicaid. So after Medicaid you will have to pay $390 a month out of your own pocket. We’re sending it over next Monday. I told them you can send whatever you want, but I ain’t paying for it and I will be sending it back”.
I told Lewis I wanted to change the subject as I didn’t want him getting riled up and risking heart trouble so we started talking about lighter subjects. I was sitting out front of my house on the phone and my brother-in-law came by to get a backpack from my house. I said “Hold on a second, Lewis” then asked my brother-in-law where he was going hiking. He said he was going elk hunting out west of Ft. Collins. Lewis overheard and said “Elk hunting? It’s too early, you will have to go way up there to get any elk, they don’t start traveling to lower elevation until it starts snowing”. “Lewis, have you done much hunting?” “Oh, not so much elk, though I have gotten a few, mostly deer… I once got a bear with a hand grenade.” “WHAT?” “Oh, I didn’t tell ’bout that before?” He told me that he went hunting with his friend who was a recent Vietnam vet and had smuggled some hand grenades back with him to the States. Lewis said his friend had a bunch of hand grenades and some sweaty dynamite. “Tom, you know what sweaty dynamite is? That is when the nitroglycerine starts leaking out of the dynamite. It makes the dynamite extremely dangerous. He kept that dynamite under his bed. He didn’t care, he was an extreme dude. He was a Special Forces killer in Vietnam. Would go across enemy lines at night, slash someone’s throat and come back. He had 57 confirmed kills. He was the coolest guy I ever met.”
“So we are up in the mountains and I take a couple of the grenades and start up the side of the mountain to see what I could do. As I am leaving, my friend says, “Get me a bear! I need a pelt!”. So while hiking around the mountain, I ran across a cave and I started poking around and sure enough, a bear was in there getting ready to hibernate. It saw me and came out and started rearing up and growling, so I pulled the pin on this grenade and tossed it under him.” “Was there anything left of him?” “Well, not much of the guts.” “What happened?” “Tom, I blew his fucking balls off! Then I skinned him and brought the pelt, paws and head back to camp and put them in the back of the truck. My friend didn’t believe me. I said “Go back and check for yourself, I am not bringing that stuff over here, it stinks! He did manage to make a pretty good pelt out of it.” “What happened to your friend.” “Oh, Tom, you know how it is, you lose track of people over time. Last thing I heard was that he went off to fight the feds at Wounded Knee“.
(For those that are not familiar with Wounded Knee, you can read about it, here. This dates this bear hunting incident to before 1973.)
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